Even FDR can’t win them all.
The Supreme Court reorganization legislation is in a very bad way on Capitol Hill, and the President has only himself to blame. Two months ago the program had an assured majority of six in the Senate and from fifty to seventy-five in the House. Today the original six-judge bill is entirely washed up, and the prospects even of a compromise on a two-judge basis are none too bright. Finally aroused to the danger of damaging defeat which faces him, the President is bestirring himself and cracking the whip. He probably will succeed in preventing a complete rout, but he is in the tightest spot of his incumbency, and if he emerges with even part of his skin he can count himself lucky.
For a highly touted political wizard the President’s generalship on the court legislation has been a brilliant flop. His opening maneuvers had all the elements of dynamic leadership and astute strategy—surprise, boldness, and aggressiveness. He sprang his plan without warning, catching the opposition off guard and unprepared. While it was still floundering around, disorganized and leaderless, he followed up his offensive with two smashing radio attacks. The situation was clearly in his hands. He had only to push home his drive by forcing speedy legislative action. Instead, Mr. Roosevelt stopped dead in his tracks and amiably let the opposition rally its cohorts and launch a shattering counter-attack. Every dictate of ordinary horse sense called for starting the bill through the legislative mill in the House. That was, and still is, the weak point of the opposition. The chamber’s limited-debate rules and general amenability to party Control lend themselves readily to parliamentary manipulation by a forceful and determined leadership. Committee hearings could have been rushed and the bill jammed through the House in a few days. Then with this okay in his hands, the President would have been in a powerful position to deal with the Senate. For one thing, the fence straddlers and waverers there would have been less inclined to rebel. Also, on the ground that public views already had been heard in the House, committee hearings in the Senate could have been either dispensed with entirely or held to a minimum. Finally, there was the psychological factor. House approval would have put the Senate opposition on the defensive.
But despite all these patent advantages to be gained by starting the ball rolling in the House, the President and his corps of master-minds, for some still unexplained reason, decided to launch their Congressional offensive in the hard-boiled Senate. As one disgusted Democratic floor leader expressed it, “This proposition wasn’t tough enough, they had to make it tougher by going at it the hardest way.”
Given the advantage in maneuvering, the surprised and delighted opposition lost no time in making the most of its opportunities. It outsmarted, outlobbied, and outdemagogued the Administration at every turn. While the latter was complacently planning to raise the party issue, the opposition secretly got together and arranged with the Republicans and Liberty Leaguers to lie low and let the dissenting Democrats carry the torch and do the breast-thumping. Then, screening their operations behind a furious hullabaloo about censorship and strong-arm tactics, the oppositionists conducted a wily filibuster in the Senate Judiciary Committee, dragging out the dull and inane proceedings nearly two months. These hearings did not contribute a single new valuable fact to the controversy. But they did enable Chief Justice Hughes to get in some hefty blows at the President’s proposal. Few realize how important a part Mr. Hughes has played in the fight against the court bill. He has conducted his operations with consummate deftness and finesse—and tremendous effectiveness. He alone is responsible for the three five-to-four decisions (Washington minimum-wage, Wagner labor-act, and Herndon civil-liberties cases) that have so heavily undermined public and Congressional support for the President’s bill. More than any other factor these decisions have been responsible for the defensive dilemma the President now finds himself in. They took the sting out of his attacks on the court and gave the wavering Senators, whose votes he needed to win, just the alibi they needed to line up against him. Mr. Hughes has played high politics these last three months and played it with boldness and agility. Not only did he reverse himself, but he accomplished the much more difficult feat of persuading justice Roberts to stop nesting with the four diehards and loop the loop with him.